“He told me not to be afraid,” Evelyn Juma says, remembering her husband. Tears stream down the young woman’s face as she sits on her unmade bed, her newborn nursing at her chest. “That’s the last thing he ever said to me.”
On the morning of April 10, when South Sudan government soldiers broke into Juma’s house in the northwestern town of Wau, the 24-year-old never dreamed it would be the last time she’d see her husband alive.
“They kept asking him if our neighbors were Nuer and which tribe we were from,” she says. When her husband refused to turn over their friends, the soldiers forced him outside and shot him in the head.
“I heard the gunshot,” Juma says, staring at her tiny daughter. She gave birth to the child, her first, just three days later.
At least 16 civilians were killed in Wau that day in what Human Rights Watch has called an “act of collective punishment, with soldiers taking revenge against unarmed civilians based on their ethnicity.”
What happened in Wau is not an isolated incident, according to human rights groups. Across South Sudan, accounts of government soldiers killing civilians based on their tribe are driving the country deeper into despair.
The world’s youngest nation in May reclaimed the number one spot on the world’s Fragile States Index, compiled by the Washington-based non-profit The Fund for Peace. Violence in April escalated to its highest level in more than three years, according to ACLED, a non-profit focused on armed conflict and data collection.
South Sudan’s civil war, now into its fourth year, has killed more than 50,000 people and plunged parts of the nation into famine. It’s being called a man-made disaster, and civilians and aid groups are largely holding government soldiers responsible.
A doctor who has worked at one of Wau’s hospitals since the beginning of the conflict says the only casualties he’s ever treated are civilians. A wounded government soldier has never walked through the door, he says. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
According to South Sudan’s independent Human Rights Observatory, 473 civilians were unlawfully killed across the country in April alone. Accounts of execution-style murders, the burning of bodies and revenge attacks were the most common. While opposition forces also have been blamed for some killings, the report concluded that the majority of deaths were caused by government forces and allied militias.
People from minority ethnic groups say they regularly lie to men in uniform when asked about their ethnicity, for fear of being killed.
Panicked communities are seeking refuge in United Nations-protected camps or fleeing to neighboring countries. Wau’s streets are now eerily bare. Shops are boarded shut, while rows of houses sit deserted.
Since the April clashes in Wau, aid workers have seen a 46 percent increase in the number of people who have fled to the local U.N. camp. Almost 40,000 people shelter there on the edge of town. It’s the most congested U.N. protection site in the country, and thousands lack basic necessities such as shelter, clean water and food.
Yet most people say they’d rather live in squalor than in fear.
On the other side of the country, in the government-controlled city of Torit, similar stories of killings abound. An estimated 30 percent of the town’s 180,000 people have fled to Kenya or Uganda. Government officials say they’re running from hunger, yet locals say they’re terrified.
“If you’re a woman they’ll rape you. If you’re a man they’ll kill you,” Torit resident Felix Dickson says.
Earlier this month, Dickson’s friend and neighbor was gunned down in his home. Dickson suspects that government troops are to blame, but as killings are so common he doesn’t expect anyone will be held accountable.
South Sudan’s government dismisses such accounts as nonsense.
“When I hear such stories of government killing civilians, I think that these people aren’t living in this world,” spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny says. “The government would not authorize killing based on ethnicity. It’s a complete lie.”
A U.N. report in May blamed pro-government forces for killing 114 civilians in the town of Yei in the second half of last year, saying the “startling level of impunity in South Sudan” has fed cycles of deadly ethnic violence.
Thousands of South Sudanese are living in dread.
Standing in his new home, Madut Quat is one of the newest arrivals to the Wau protection camp. When the fighting erupted in April, he fled his home with his wife and four small children. Since the camp is so crowded, he and his family have yet to be given shelter. They sleep outside on the mud-soaked ground.
“Dinka soldiers were killing my tribe,” Quat says, referring to the ethnic group of President Salva Kiir.
Dressed in a tattered Barack Obama T-shirt, the middle-aged father soberly rests his head on his walking stick.
Having never seen Obama’s face, he had no idea that the image on his chest was that of the former U.S. president. Once he understands, Quat smiles softly.
“Now I feel good wearing it,” he says. “But I still have no hope.”
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